The dissonant heritage of extermination camps

Contrary to what is commonly feared in Poland, the interlocutors do not usually mean “Polish camps” nor suggest that Auschwitz, Treblinka or Majdanek were run by Poles. This is the view of a handful of dunces. More often we will encounter the opinion that the location of the camps was not accidental, for it was easier for the Germans (or the Nazis, as Westerners say today) to murder Jews in a country where citizens supported such practice. Nazi camps in anti ‑Semitic Poland are a widespread cliché with numerous advocates. It’s relatively easy to disarm it with a common sense logistical argument: they murdered where there were most people to be murdered. In any case, they did it in Poland. This point is hard to refute. A great genocide did occur on Polish territory and it is here that we find its testimonies, and the most important extermination camps. The fact that Poland didn’t exist back then doesn’t matter. Geography is what matters to contemporary people. Nothing can be done about it.

[...] In some respects, it’s not an incorrect opinion. As far as the size of destruction and the scale of inflicted death are concerned, few countries of today’s Eastern Europe can be compared to Poland. The largest ghettos, the most important camps, the completely destroyed capital, the most atrocious terror in the cities and the countryside… But was slaughtering Poles in Volhynia, executing Jews in Minsk and Berdyczów, burning down Belarusian villages, or drowning people alive in the waters of the Danube in Novi Sad and Budapest less horrible? Did it mean less suffering? Was the Jewish community in Lithuanian Kaunas, decimated with machine-gun bullets, worth less than Warsaw Jews murdered in Treblinka?

[...] The fact that such a death was experienced mostly by European Jews is historically significant, but of secondary importance from the point of view of the imagination. What works on the popular imagination is mostly the method which the executioners used in order to kill quickly and on a large scale. This new and extremely drastic method produces alarming associations with the era of efficiency, mechanisation and massification. This is why Chełmno and Treblinka are “worse” than Babi Yar and Ponary, and Majdanek is worse than the camps in Transnistria. It so happened – it’s the fault of the Third Reich and also, to some extent, a curse of geography – that what’s most horrible for the popular  imagination finds itself today on Polish territory.

[....] The area of the former Auschwitz‑Birkenau camp is one of the most visited sites in Poland. In 2016, it was visited by over two million people. Only 20 percent of them were Poles, the rest came from abroad, mostly Americans, Brits, Italians, Spaniards, Israelis, and Germans. Tourists from East Asia come increasingly often. Organised groups and individual tourists appear in Auschwitz; a visit in the former camp is an obligatory element of every “Holocaust tour,” but people increasingly often make it part of their holiday in Poland. The best example is the offer of Kraków tourist offices, where Auschwitz is packaged together with old Kraków, the Wieliczka salt mine and sometimes the Tatras. Auschwitz is a pilgrimage site, a cemetery, a genocide memorial, and on top of that, it still possesses the original infrastructure (at least to a large extent), which in an almost tangible way attacks the senses rather than just the imagination, like Treblinka.

Piotr Paziński, The dissonant heritage of extermination camps, HERITO nr 29, Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury